Along With Home Building, Theft Is
Lumber Trade Deadlock Drags On As Wood Prices
LVL and Sawn Wood Sandwich Makes Strong "Hybrid"
Losing Court Case, DOE Brings Back SEER-13
Unwilling Feds Launch Red-Tape Remedy for
Along With Home Building,
Theft Is Booming
If news reports from around the country are any indication,
there's one growth sector in the economy that's every bit as
hot as home building: stealing from job sites. Examples are
everywhere. "Construction thefts jumped 84% between 2002 and
2003 west of Delray Beach," reports the South Florida
. The Houston Chronicle
"Hardiplank siding is the hot commodity on burglar wish lists."
Near Phoenix, a builder told the Arizona Republic, thieves are
scoring "everything and the kitchen sink." And the
described a Rhode Island police
chief wondering how a thief planned to pawn a stolen hot
The crooks don't make exceptions for charities: The St. Louis
chapter of Habitat for Humanity lost $20,000 worth of tools
when thieves chopped through storage trailer roofs in March.
Police recovered only a few items, but an outpouring of
community support, including in-kind donations from local
Lowe's and Home Depot stores, has put the Habitat chapter back
in business for its June blitz-build and more determined than
ever. "This simply renews our understanding for the need to be
in this neighborhood," said executive director Kimberley
In a typical episode, police in
Loudon and Belmont, N.H., are trying to find the
rightful owners of hundreds of tools allegedly stolen
by four local men who raided unguarded job sites at
Who's doing it? Police say
construction workers do much of the stealing. "They know what's
sitting out in the open, free for the taking," Texas
investigator Kim Franklin told the Houston Chronicle.
Drugs also play a role, said Indianola, Iowa, police detective
Don Duke — especially the cheap, and highly addictive,
"In six months, people can go from casual amphetamine users to
serious addicts who will spend all day looking for things to
steal and trade for drugs," says Duke. "Some of them, that's
their only job."
Security strategies. Police
often recover stolen tools, and they try to identify owners and
return the items. If your tools are marked, quick reporting can
help: "A lot of times the thief won't try to scrape off a
name," says Don Duke. "Whoever they sell it to will, but the
thief usually doesn't."
A second, hidden marking ups the odds of getting a tool back.
"Fences can burn paint off a tool with a torch," explains
Concord, Calif., detective Don Lawson. "We tell people to
scratch some small but identifiable symbol on the power cords.
Our detectives know to look for that."
Lawson has learned other tips from thieves turned informant:
"When contractors unlock their tool boxes every morning, they
may hook the open lock back onto the box. Thieves will put on a
tool belt, walk onto the site, and switch their own lock for
the owner's lock. The owner locks it up at 5 p.m. and goes home
— and the criminal comes back that night with the key."
The obvious solution, says Lawson, is to snap your lock shut
when you hang it on your box.
Experts say thieves avoid sites where they can't score in ten
minutes or less. "They can break the lock on a shed with a
torch," says Lawson, "but if you park a big piece of equipment
where it blocks the door, that may be enough to discourage
them." If there's power in the building, leave the lights on to
deter passing crooks from stopping, he advises — and
inform police that if the lights are off, you'd like them to
thieves wiped out seven trailer-loads of tools stored
at a planned 20-unit Habitat for Humanity blitz-build,
St. Louis businesses stepped up to keep the Habitat
project on track. Here, Habitat workers pick up tools
Frustration mounts. Some
officers say budget cuts have hampered their efforts.
Indianola's Detective Duke made news this spring by nabbing a
thief who had been hitting jobs all over the Des Moines metro
area for more than 18 months, scoring tools and materials worth
more than $250,000. "He delivered materials for a company that
also made all the master keys for several large developments,"
explains Duke, "so he knew all the schedules, knew where
valuable materials had been delivered, and was able to walk
through homes and identify valuable stuff. At night he could
unlock the door, take just a few high-value items, and be out
of there in five minutes."
An alert foreman spotted the man's truck parked at a house and
reported it, and Duke and a partner nabbed him. Des Moines
police then identified and arrested the fence who was buying
the stolen goods. But most of the tools, windows, cabinets, and
appliances were never recovered.
Duke says in frustration, "He should have been caught months
earlier." Police in several towns had descriptions of the man
and his truck, and some even knew his name, but none of them
knew that other departments also suspected the same man.
"All the forces have laid off a lot of the staff people who
file those reports," explains Duke. "They say the office staff
cuts won't hurt enforcement, but it does hurt — the
detectives can't do paperwork and also be out on the street
catching criminals. The people whose job it was to share the
intel — we don't have them anymore." Citizens assume that
when they report a theft, the information gets passed to other
communities and to state police, says Duke, but that may not be
true: "If you even want police in the next town to know about
it, you may have to go tell them yourself."
Lumber Trade Deadlock
Drags On As Wood Prices Surge
An international trade panel reviewing U.S. penalties and
duties assessed on imported Canadian lumber ruled at the end of
April that they violate the North American Free Trade Agreement
(NAFTA). The panel concluded that the U.S. Commerce
Department's International Trade Commission failed to follow
U.S. law and acted without substantial justification. The panel
gave the U.S. side 21 days to respond.
U.S. authorities could continue to collect money at the border
until February 2005 while they drag out the appeals process
further. But there's no strong reason to hope for a reversal,
and some U.S. and Canadian lumber companies immediately urged
both sides to break the logjam and cut a deal.
Enough already, says NAHB.
U.S. builders have long opposed the import fees and are losing
patience with a government policy that limits lumber supplies,
adds to costs, and is thought by many to be driven by
small-time congressional politics. National Association of Home
Builders (NAHB) president Bobby Rayburn called on the
administration "not to engage in legal delays and to allow the
implementation of this decision. It's high time to roll back
the hidden tax imposed on American home buyers." Lumber
distributor and home center groups echoed NAHB's call.
Spiking lumber prices undercut the
argument for penalizing imports.
Trade warriors hang tough.
But no rollback or deal looked likely by early May.
Unofficially, the U.S. side stuck to its stubborn stance,
apparently hoping that Canada may still tire of the game first.
But Canada turned down a deal in January, and observers say the
latest ruling gives Canadians even more reason to avoid
bargaining and push for a clear NAFTA win.
As tribunals consistently fail to buy the U.S. rationale, U.S.
intransigence is adding to resentment among some Canadians of
their rich and powerful neighbor to the south. "Can someone
remind me why we're even in the NAFTA with these crooks?" asked
one post to the vivelecanada.ca website.
U.S. side gambits have added to Canadian irritation. In
February, the Commerce Department questioned Canadian aid
programs for laid-off mill workers and loggers, and even
suggested that Canadian ads on U.S. television, which ask
Americans to remember the two nations' historic friendship,
amount to another illegal subsidy.
And just before the NAFTA ruling was released, the U.S. timber
lobby filed an ethics complaint against American panel member
Louis Mastriani, alleging that his law firm might gain from
precedents set by the decision. Calling the challenge
"improper," Mastriani issued a detailed rebuttal and refused to
LVL and Sawn Wood Sandwich Makes
Strong "Hybrid" Glulam
For long headers or girders, a builder's choices include
sawn lumber built-up beams, laminated veneer lumber (LVL)
members, and glulams. A relatively new glulam product out of
the northwest U.S. combines the three. Called a "hybrid"
glulam, the innovative beam is a typical glulam beam made of
stacked and glued dimensional lumber, but with a difference:
LVL material is used for the top and bottom laminations, where
the greatest stress concentrations are found.
By placing the stronger but more expensive LVL material where
it can do the most work, the hybrid beams optimize the tradeoff
between strength and economy. The result, says Jim Enright of
Rosboro Lumber Co. in Springfield, Ore.
(www.rosboro.com), is a beam that's both
stronger and lighter than LVL or sawn lumber alone.
Rosboro developed the new glulam system, a version of which is
also marketed by Vancouver, Washington's Calvert Company. Made
in depths to match either wood I-beams or sawn joists and
thicknesses to match 2x4 or 2x6 wall framing, Rosboro's
trademarked Big Beam is intended to fit easily into the framing
process on site, Enright says. Residential spans are typically
not long enough to require beams to have a "camber" or crown,
he says; with LVL top and bottom laminations of equal strength,
Rosboro's hybrid beam has no designated "top" side, avoiding
the risk that the beam may be installed upside down.
Losing Court Case, DOE
Brings Back SEER-13 Air-Conditioner Rule
Shortly after taking office, the Bush administration changed
a Clinton ruling that would have made all new air conditioners
meet a SEER-13 efficiency minimum by 2006; the Bush
administration lowered the minimum to SEER-12. But a consumer
lawsuit, joined by several states, has forced a reversal of the
change: In January of 2006, says DOE, SEER-13 minimums will
take effect, after all.
"With a 12-SEER unit, you get 12 Btus per watt of power
consumption. A 13-SEER unit gives you 13 Btus per watt,"
explains North Carolina hvac contractor Dwayne Akers. "Over a
year, it adds up, and it reduces the strain on the electric
grid." But Akers says the 2006 switch will "drastically raise
the cost to the consumer." In mild climates, energy savings may
never pay back that added cost.
SEER-13 air conditioners like the
unit at left have larger coils and need advanced fans
SEER-13 units currently make up a small fraction of units
sold. Hundreds of SEER-13 models are available, but virtually
all are sold as the deluxe choice, with core components
wholesaling for double or triple the cost of a "builder's
basic" SEER-10 unit.
With the rules changing, suppliers are sure to introduce
"baseline" SEER-13 units, says Akers. But the efficiency
upgrade involves some unavoidable costs for things such as
bigger coils and bigger air handlers. And that's just the
beginning. Units can't reach SEER-13 without system
improvements, like variable-speed fan motors and more
sophisticated controls. Also, to work properly at the required
lower operating pressures, systems will need add-ons such as
thermal expansion valves.
Changeouts, no longer a simple swap, will be unpredictably
expensive: "You can't put a high-SEER unit on an old evaporator
coil and expect it to work," says Akers. Fans and coils must
match the new appliance, which usually means a new cabinet to
fit the bigger parts and may mean new ductwork, too.
If everything's not done right, adds Akers, the house may
suffer from "dirty sock syndrome," a musty smell caused by mold
growth on damp ducts and warm coils. Good results, he says, are
about craftsmanship more than equipment: "You can install a
SEER-8 system that is properly sized and properly matched, with
good ductwork, and it will use less energy and give better
comfort than a SEER-13 system where those things are not done
Launch Red-Tape Remedy for Red-Legged Frog
Its hand forced by a citizen lawsuit, the Fish &
Wildlife Service in April proposed to designate a
4.1-million-acre portion of California as critical habitat for
the California red-legged frog. Listed as a threatened species,
the frog has been squeezed into a fraction of its former range
by mining, farming, and development. But a Fish & Wildlife
spokesperson said the critical habitat designation "provides
little additional protection." The main effect is to create
long paperwork delays for projects involving federal agencies
or federal land.
red-legged frog and its northern cousin range over
broad areas between the mountains and the shore. A
lawsuit has forced the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
to propose designating 4.1 million acres of the frog's
range as "critical habitat," complicating any land-use
decisions involving federal property or
The frog's furtive ways make counts uncertain, notes Fish
& Wildlife: "Frogs hide in heavy vegetation and under
banks, in holes, in cracks, and under objects. A researcher may
be able to locate a collared frog by radio to within one square
meter and still not be able to see it."
Pushed into a habitat delineation that's hard to substantiate,
the Service complained that "designating critical habitat is
driven by litigation rather than biology, limits our ability to
fully evaluate the science involved, consumes enormous agency
resources, and imposes huge social and economic costs."
Fish & Wildlife has lost lawsuits from both sides in the
frog's case: once to a cluster of environmental groups, and
once to a coalition led by the California Building Industry
Association. Officials said in April that complying with court
orders and settlement agreements now consumes most of the
listing program's budget.
Congressional hearings are coming up on proposals to reform
the Endangered Species Act, which critics say is "broken." But
in an election year, said a committee staffer, reformers aren't
expecting much action. For the time being, he said, all they
want is attention.
OffcutsDenver mayor John Hickenlooper says that
streamlining the city's bureaucratic review and approval
process could cut the cost of new housing by 5%,
according to a Rocky Mountain News
adopting the International Building Code
wouldn't have to adapt to the city's unique requirements could
cut 1% to 2% off costs, said Hickenlooper. He also suggested
creating cross-departmental teams to work on applications
together, avoiding the lengthy back-and-forth between agencies
that slows down the current system. "Sometimes city workers
don't recognize that if they keep asking for more information
and postponing meetings and getting cross-wired with people in
other city departments, it costs builders money," said
Hickenlooper, who is himself a former developer. The new mayor
said that red tape on one 32-unit loft project he codeveloped
took 18 months, instead of the expected 10 months.
Wisconsin governor Jim Doyle has signed legislation to
streamline the state's air and water permitting
process, according to press reports. Builders in the
state supported the measure, which the governor said would help
hold down the cost of housing. Some environmental activists had
opposed the measure, saying it would reduce protection for
natural resources, but the bill passed the state assembly by a
margin of 80 to 14 and the senate by 27 to 3. At a signing
ceremony, Governor Doyle said that his administration has cut
the waiting time for a water permit in Wisconsin from 110 days
down to a month or less.
New Jersey governor James McGreevey's 2004 budget
proposal includes a 1% fee on the sales price of homes selling
for $1 million or more, according to the Newark
Star-Ledger. The money raised by the "McMansion tax" and
other fee increases targeting high-end real estate transactions
would be used for property tax relief for towns, in order to
help defray costs of development, including the cost of meeting
tough new stormwater management rules, said Bradley Campbell,
commissioner of the state's Department of Environmental
The Building Industry Association of Washington may
back a ballot initiative to make the director of the state's
Department of Labor and Industries an elected rather than
appointed official, reports the Puget Sound
Business Journal. One key responsibility of the department
is the workers' compensation insurance system, which has seen
premium increases of 29% in 2003 and 9.8% this year. BIAW has
had success with the ballot initiative strategy in recent
years, scoring wins on measures affecting ergonomics
regulations and unemployment compensation.
Dog owners will share in a new "upscale urban amenity"
if they buy a condo unit in Cristalla, a 22-story
Seattle project under construction, reports the Puget Sound
Business Journal. Architects have reserved part of the
building's rooftop garden for a dog park, complete with hardy
shrubs and a hose-rinsable, lid-covered "doggy potty."
Street-level turf is scarce in densely packed Seattle, and the
lure of a high-altitude private lawn with plumbing has drawn
enough dog owners to account for a third of the project's
presold units. No word yet on how cats may be accommodated in
the green roofscape.Back to